I kid. Kind of. But not really. I mean, my country doesn't need me, specifically, but it certainly needs people willing to cross some scary bridges. There are so many scary bridges.
So. Hi, again! Let's get right to it.
In the midst of the US election campaign, and in the spirit of my ongoing search for empathy this year, I decided to read Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. It is about, as the title says, "anger and mourning on the American right." I first heard about the book in the New York Times, which gave it a very positive review and championed Hochschild's empathy for people who stand on the other side of the political divide than she does.
Hochschild, a sociologist known for her book The Second Shift about working moms in America, really does strive to "scale the empathy wall." (In fact, she uses the phrase "scale the empathy wall" a LOT. More on her language later.) She is a left-leaning academic from Berkeley, but she's also a sociologist whose focus is on how emotions can shape our lives and beliefs. So she's perfect for this task! She's also white, which I suspect helped a lot, though she did not talk about this element of privilege directly. It can be difficult to talk about race frankly and openly and inoffensively.
I read Strangers in Their Own Land because, like many "liberal elites" (a phrase that seems to have been coined in the past 72 hours), I rarely come into contact with rural Americans, let alone Tea Partiers. I have many stereotypes and preconceived notions about them (those on the far right), which are just as unfair as any stereotypes and preconceived notions they may have about me. This book was my first step in trying to understand them, their values, and their opinions just a little bit better. I can't say that I feel fully enlightened now, but I do understand why they feel so abandoned and how that drives their choices.
Hochschild really wanted to get to the heart of what drives Americans on the far right to, in many people's minds, vote directly against their own interests. They vote for less government support even as they depend on Medicaid and unemployment; they vote for less regulation even as they see the horrible effects of unbridled pollution around them; they vote for big business even as it abandons them. What she finds is that they are driven by many real, concrete things that the rest of us have trouble understanding. First, they have a deep and abiding and very concrete connection to God. Even though this world may be polluted, Heaven will not be. And Heaven is where they spend eternity. Second, they really need jobs. Any jobs. Otherwise, their homes and their friends and their livelihoods will disappear. You need to prioritize things, and jobs are prioritized over everything else. Third, they value sacrifice. Sometimes you need to sacrifice things that are important to you (like women's health and environmental safety) for things that are more important to you (like jobs and a comfortable home). Also, they really love this analogy of "waiting in line." They have waited in line for a really long time, and other people keep cutting in front of them. Maybe those people have worked hard, and maybe they are good people. But that doesn't mean they deserve to cut.
It was very difficult for me to read this book. Not because I don't think the values above are important. I do think they are important. I understand that our culture values work and job titles over almost everything else. It is embarrassing to not have a job and a title that reflects who you are and how smart you are and how hard you work. I also understand prioritization. And while I am not religious myself, I respect that people have a right to worship as they choose.
My main issue is that nothing in this book made me believe that Tea Partiers would extend the same courtesy to me. I have difficulty extending empathy towards people that I don't believe would treat me and my beliefs with empathy. For example, I believe very strongly in a woman's right to choose. People in this book are very religious and usually very pro-life. Therefore, they want to limit everyone's access to abortion, in line with their religious morals, regardless of the fact that it is not in line with my religious morals. In contrast, they believe very strongly in the right to bear arms. (The Bible tells you not to kill other people, but this does not come up.) They get very upset by the possibility that people would take away their right to own guns. But the connection between their right to bear arms and a woman's right to choose whether or not to bear a child... well, let's just say they don't see this connection. They want less regulation over some things but are totally fine with regulation over others.
As Hochshild points out,
"the Great Paradox becomes more complicated... Liquor, guns, motorcycle helmets - mainly white masculine pursuits - are fairly unregulated. But for women and black men, regulation is greater...while the state boasts a reputation of an almost cowboy-style "don't-fence-me-in" freedom, that is probably not how a female rape victim who wants an abortion, or a young black boy in Jefferson Davis Parish see the matter."It's these inconsistencies that I really wanted Hochschild to hone in on and explain to me (HELP ME UNDERSTAND, ARLIE). But I felt like she just noted them and moved on. She did not push anyone to justify this paradox, probably because her goal was "scaling the empathy wall," not changing anyone's mind. I understand prioritizing some things more than others (such as jobs over the environment, I suppose). But what about this stance on less regulation, except when it comes to women and minorities?
Speaking of "scaling the empathy wall," this was somewhat more difficult for me to do because of the language Hochshild used. There was a lot of jargon in this book. "Scaling the empathy wall" was one phrase that was used [too] often. As was "deep story," an articulation of another person's worldview that shows how emotions play into values. The Tea Partier's "deep story" is that other people are cutting in line and getting ahead while he waits patiently for his turn.
But the thing is that Tea Partiers are not waiting patiently for their turn. There is so much that is inherently sexist and racist in the whole idea of "waiting in line" that I don't even know where to begin with my objections. But here's a sample. Why were people like you the only people allowed in the line for so long? What makes you think that you work harder than anyone else? Why does my joining the line somehow imply that your wait has now become longer? Why do you assume that everyone is in the same line? Why are you willing to give people who look and talk like you the benefit of the doubt but you assume everyone else is trying to cheat the system? Why are you willing to donate to your local soup kitchen but you think people abuse food stamps?
I understand that jobs are leaving rural areas, that communities are drying up, that drugs are coming in to fill the void, and that the path to education and forward momentum seems stagnant. All of these are very real issues and I absolutely understand voting for your interests. I think Hochschild did a really good job of showing this and how little choice and agency people have over their lives.
Where I think Hochschild fell short is that she doesn't make the connection between this prioritization and how this leads people to value their own way of life and their own privilege over other people and against everything that science and data and fact say are true. She mentions right-wing news like FOX and talk radio only as it pertains to how people receive their information, not about how it directly impacts their worldview. Maybe this is too much to ask from a book, but I think Hochschild focused a lot on giving us a window into the life of a Tea Partier and why we should have empathy for them, but she doesn't make many overtures to convince them to have empathy for the rest of us and our worldview. And again, maybe this is expecting too much, but she also doesn't present readers with any ideas on how to bridge this gaping divide between us. So while I think this really was a very enlightening and sobering book, particularly about the horrific policy decisions made by Bobby Jindal, I wanted much more from it. I'll have to keep reading. Based on the results of this past election, I feel certain that there will be many articles and books written about this soon. If you know of any that I have not listed below, please share!
Are you interested in learning more about this topic?
Here are some other books I have on hold but not read yet:
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, by JD Vance
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank
And some articles that I did read and found very informative:
How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind
Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch
I'm a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America
And this podcast series that is excellent:
The United States of Anxiety